Before taking my first trip to Paris earlier this month, I was told to beware of some of the common street scams.
I was targeted for the petition scam twice. The petition scam uses foot-in-the-door and, sometimes as a bonus, diverted attention.
In the petition scam, the thief approaches a likely mark with a clipboard in hand and asks, “Do you speak English?” When the mark says, “Yes,” the thief asks something like, “Would you sign this petition to support people who are deaf and mute?” When the mark says they are indeed willing, the thief hands over the clipboard and a pen. After the mark signs, the thief asks for a donation to support the cause. The money “donated” does not go to a cause other than the thief’s own. Foot-in-the-door research shows that, for example, people are more willing after signing a petition, to put ugly signs in their yards (Freedman & Fraser, 1966) or donate more money to a cause (Schwarzwald, Bizman, & Raz, 1983).
The foot-in-the-door technique starts with an innocuous question: “Do you speak English?” The mark’s response of “yes” is the foot getting in the door. The response also quickly identifies the mark as a tourist. Although, frankly, tourists are not that hard to spot. They’re the ones standing on sidewalks looking at maps. With their foot in the door, the thief aims to wedge it in even farther. The thief next asks the mark to sign a petition for a good cause. After all, who doesn’t want to support people are deaf and mute? Most people have a pretty easy time signing their name to support a cause – and the door is opened even wider. And now comes the “sales pitch.” “Donate some money to the cause – you know, that cause that you just signed your name to supporting.” The thief hopes that the person wants to avoid the dissonance caused by saying one thing (“I support this cause”) but doing something else (“I’m not going to donate any money”) by actually handing over money.
Sometimes the petitioners work with an accomplice. While the mark holds the clipboard with one hand and signs with the other – distracted by the task and with their hands off their belongings, an accomplice rifles through the mark’s bags or pockets.
If the mark donates money, the thief and their accomplice see which pocket or area in a bag the money comes from and follows the mark waiting for another opportunity to pickpocket. Distraction caused by a staged commotion by other accomplices makes for easy pickings.
The first petitioner who approached me in the Latin Quarter, asked if I spoke English. I said, “Yes.” She asked if I’d sign her petition to support people who are deaf and mute. That’s when alarm bells went off in my head. I’m in France. Who is she petitioning that she needs English-speakers? And “supporting” a group isn’t much of a petition. It helped that I was aware of the foot-in-the-door literature, so the only endings I could see were either being asked to donate money or being asked to put an ugly sign in my yard.
I immediately declined her invitation to sign while simultaneously retaining a firm grip on my bag. When the second petitioner, this time on the Champs-Élysées, approached with the same “do you speak English” question, I said in my best French accent which, admittedly, is not very good, “Non.” She looked at me as if she didn’t believe me – probably because she just saw me holding a Paris guidebook written in English and because she heard me speaking English to my wife. Either way she knew I wasn’t going to fall for it and decided not to waste her time.
I regret not finding a shady spot and watching these women in action. I guess the only choice I have is to go back to Paris.
Freedman, J. L., & Fraser, S. C. (1966). Compliance without pressure: The foot-in-the-door technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0023552
Schwarzwald, J., Bizman, A., & Raz, M. (1983). The Foot-in-the-Door Paradigm: Effects of Second Request Size on Donation Probability and Donor Generosity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 9(3), 443–450. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167283093015